SWEET-SOUNDING, YET STRONG: Carbon fiber composites are sturdier than even the hardest woods. Instruments made from these materials are unusually light and are producing sound that more closely mimics their wood counterparts, attracting the attention of world-renowned musicians including cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Image: COURTESY OF KEVIN SPRAGUE
Historically, carbon-fiber composites have beefed up airplane and space shuttle wings, formed rocket nose cones, and sliced through the waves in the America's Cup. Known for their stronger-than-steel sturdiness, the materials weren't originally developed with high art in mind. But instruments made from these materials offer many advantages: they're durable, lighter than wood, and insensitive to changes in temperature or humidity.
These qualities, as well as the even tone of his fiberglass Hobie Cat as it cut through the water, inspired amateur sailor and professional cellist Luis Leguia to experiment with new materials that might make fragile concert instruments lighter and more durable without compromising sound. "I wanted something with quality and projection and volume and body to the sound," says Leguia, who in 1989 began building prototype carbon-fiber instruments in his Milton, Mass., basement. "That's a hard combination to realize." Steve Clark, a shipbuilder and carbon-fiber expert who owns Portsmouth, R.I.–based Vanguard Sailboats, joined him in 1995 to work out the kinks in production. By 2000, they had formed a company called Luis and Clark in Milton and begun making violins, violas, double basses and other orchestral instruments.
The instruments are now manufactured by Matt Dunham of Clear Carbon & Components in Bristol, R.I., but Leguia plays each one to assure its quality.
The instruments have been slowly but surely catching on. The company sold 190 of its carbon creations in 2007, more than double the 85 sold just two years earlier. (Last year, the numbers dipped to 170, which the makers attribute to the slumping economy, although sales are up this year). And the carbon creations are now used by cellist Yo-Yo Ma and other world-renowned musicians. At $7,139 a pop, a Luis and Clark cello is a bargain compared with the millions of dollars it costs for one made by Stradivarius or Guarnerius. At a January 30 "all carbon fiber" concert at The Calhoun School in New York City, 21 string players showcased Leguia's instruments. And Yo-Yo Ma considered using his Luis and Clark cello when he performed at Pres. Barack Obama's inauguration, according to The New York Times.
The carbon fibers that give the material their strength are graphite produced in mats. Those mats are layered in a mold and soaked with a resin made from epoxy or an unsaturated polyester, which hardens to make a composite. "By themselves [the carbon fibers] are pretty useless, but the resin bonds them all together and makes very highly rigid materials," says Richard Wool, a polymer chemist at the University of Delaware in Newark.